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November 18, 2021

Responding To: Inquiries into the Future of Cosmopolitanism

Confucian Cosmopolitanism: Relationships as a Basis for Obligations toward Non-Citizens

Justin Tiwald

The short version of my question is this: whether traditional Confucianism can provide a basis (understood as sufficient ground or justification) for a certain kind of cosmopolitanism, conceived in broad brush strokes as the view that we should have a sense of shared identity with peoples of other nation-states. I will say more about the relevant kind or type of cosmopolitanism I have in mind shortly. Let me begin by explaining why I think this question is interesting and important. For one thing, it is an important question for would-be cosmopolitans across East Asia. Secondly, it is sometimes said that Confucianism conceives of all of its ethical values (or maybe just its primary or core ethical values) as grounded in relationships or social roles.Footnote 1 And yet, it is also clear that the canonical Confucians think that virtuous people generally care about and act on behalf of people in general, even when those people don’t belong to the same nation-state. This raises important questions about whether Confucian ethical values really are relationship-based after all, or whether (perhaps) Confucianism points to some way of conceiving of oneself as being in a relationship with people of different nation-states. Thirdly, historical Confucians debated and developed compelling arguments for a certain conception of virtuous care that is sometimes called “graded love” or “care with distinctions.” When moral agents instantiate and exhibit the virtue of humaneness (ren 仁), they care most about and thus have the most demanding ethical obligations toward their immediate families, and then care somewhat less for (and have somewhat less demanding obligations toward) good friends and more distant family members, and, perhaps, have a smaller degree of care for and obligation toward members of their respective residential and work communities, and so on for people more distantly related to the agent in question. Those of us who teach Confucianism on a regular basis sometimes use the image of concentric circles to illustrate this schema. Depending on the particular Confucian in question, at the outermost ring are non-human animals, flora, or even insentient artifacts like tiles. But some steps in from the outermost ring are human beings in general, whom humane moral agents presumably care about in virtue of the fact that they are human and not in virtue of their nationality or citizenship. That ring – the one for human beings in general – could be the locus of Confucian cosmopolitanism.

Are Confucian relationships or care with distinctions enough to underwrite a plausible and meaningful cosmopolitanism for Confucians? I will suggest (preliminarily) that the former is not but the latter is, provided that we take the cosmopolitanism in question to be relatively moderate. Before making my primary arguments for these two claims, however, I will say more about the particular sort of cosmopolitanism that Confucians would have in view.

Moderate Civic Cosmopolitanism

There are many types of cosmopolitanism, some of which have direct implications for our duties to citizens of other states, or for international law, or for the development of transnational political institutions. The focus of this essay is what I will call civic cosmopolitanism. Civic cosmopolitanism has direct implications for the sense of shared identity that we as individuals should develop, a sense that is closely linked to norms regarding how we behave toward people of all states or nations. For a worldview to count as providing a basis for civic cosmopolitanism, the people who hold the worldview and live in economic and political circumstances that are typical for many human beings in the early 21st century (living under shared and global threats to the human species, having a certain amount of economic co-dependency, etc.) should have sufficient reasons to develop a sense of shared identity. Furthermore, this shared identity should have certain implications for the sorts of lives they live and the people they become. It should follow from the sense of shared identity that one should be somewhat informed about global issues, should be somewhat familiar with the many ways in which their own cultural biases and presuppositions can give a blinkered understanding of other peoples (i.e. people living under other political regimes), and should have reasons to act in the interest of other peoples in non-trivial ways (e.g., encouraging employers and governments not to invest in or give tax breaks to companies that use slave labor, or support non-governmental organizations that advocate for the basic rights of other peoples). This is, admittedly, a sketchy description of the sort of cosmopolitanism that I am interested in, but I hope it is enough to distinguish it from the many types that are of interest to scholars and thoughtful observers of public affairs more generally.Footnote 2

There are moderate and radical variants of civic cosmopolitanism. One of the most radical variants says that people should see themselves as having the same obligations to other peoples as they would have to fellow citizens. For example, they would see profound inequalities across national boundaries to be problematic in ways that are fundamentally continuous with inequalities within a nation-state, and thus think that they warrant global social safety nets or regulations just as domestic inequalities might warrant national legislation that protects the rights and interests of the poor and powerless. These are the sorts of civic cosmopolitans who consider themselves “citizens of the world,” in Diogenes’s famous phrase.Footnote 3 But a more moderate alternative doesn’t go so far as to say that we should regard ourselves as citizens of the world. It is enough that we see ourselves as having some sort of relationship that is thinner than shared citizenship and yet still substantial or consequential enough to underwrite meaningful commitments to protect or promote the interests of other peoples, or to promote joint projects for one another’s sake or the sake of the whole. By “meaningful commitments,” I have in mind things such as a commitment to denying material support to companies and regimes that commit atrocities like genocide, or to compensating people of other nation-states for damage done or resources taken from them by one’s own nation-state, or to providing some relief funds to citizens of other nation-states facing starvation or massive dislocation. If one sees these commitments as being comparable to those that one would have to fellow citizens, then one’s civic cosmopolitanism isn’t moderate but radical. If one only has extraordinarily weak commitments to other peoples – for example, one is willing to lament the suffering of earthquake victims in other nation-states but not to render aid even at no cost to oneself, that is probably not sufficiently meaningful to qualify a civic cosmopolitanism of even moderate degree or variety. Moderate civic cosmopolitanism requires more than lamentation but less than treating as fellow citizens.Footnote 4

Care with Distinctions

If there is much hope of developing a civic cosmopolitanism that is consistent with core Confucian doctrines, it must be of the more moderate variant. As others have pointed out, “care with distinctions” seems to endorse some obligations to non-citizen strangers, but clearly weaker or less demanding ones than to strangers within one’s own nation-state (Bai 2020: 175-78). Confucians came to refine, embrace, and build an ethical worldview around care with distinctions over the course of many centuries of debate with philosophical and religious rivals, at first in opposition to Mohist advocates of impartial caring (jian’ai 兼愛) and later in contrast with Buddhist proponents of great compassion (daci 大慈).Footnote 5 It is thus very much at the core of Confucian ethical and political thought. I find at least two influential lines of argument for care with distinctions. First, care with distinctions is necessary for special relationships, which are a central and indispensable part of the human good and the ethical life. To treat someone as a parent just is to regard their interests as having a stronger fundamental ethical claim on oneself than the interests of strangers, and to live without such special relationships is to live without essential human goods (Mengzi 3B9). Second, any system of ethical value that fails to take proper account of our natural inclination to care about those near and dear to us – especially about members of our family – simply won’t be adequately grounded or “rooted” (ben 本) in human nature, which is destined to make for all kinds of ethical and perhaps metaethical mischief.Footnote 6 So if there is to be a vision of civic cosmopolitanism that is recognizably Confucian, it would probably need to treat non-citizen strangers as having a significant fundamental claim on moral agents, but also a weaker fundamental claim than fellow citizens or subjects of the same nation-state.

I can envision some ways of escaping this marriage of Confucianism with moderate cosmopolitanism. But they don’t strike me as very promising. For example, a would-be Confucian advocate for radical cosmopolitanism might say that nationality or citizenship are morally arbitrary for purposes of determining how close or far a person should be to the center of the concentric circles. Some other connection (such as common ancestry, shared history, or shared interests) should determine how much I should care about other people. But this just trades one kind of moderate cosmopolitanism for another (less explicitly political) one. I do not think it gets the radical cosmopolitan what she really wants. Moreover, it is hard to see how Confucians would solve large-scale social coordination problems except by creating group identities around relatively unified governmental institutions.Footnote 7

Another option is to repackage radical civic cosmopolitanism as a regulative ideal of a certain kind: the sort that is worth striving for even if it is, in fact, impossible to realize it fully. By nature, we just care a lot more about the people with whom we are in special relationships, such as family and members of our communities. So we make allowances for the fact that we care a lot more about them than about non-citizen strangers, and yet we still do our best to care for non-citizen strangers as we would members of our communities. In some respects, this strategy resembles one implicit in the surviving works of the Stoic philosopher Hierocles (fl. 2nd century CE). In his discussion of “appropriation” (oikeiôsis), Hierocles paints a similar picture of the relationship of self to other persons, with the self at the very center of a series of concentric circles, immediate family members in the next ring out, and so on until we reach human beings in general in the outermost ring. But Hierocles nevertheless thinks it desirable and admirable to bring those in the outer rings closer, and even goes so far as to propose some ways of making that happen – for example, by using slightly more intimate terms of address for those more remotely related (calling cousins “brothers,” calling people with no relation “cousins,” and so on).Footnote 8 This strategy has the advantage of making major concessions to human nature while still holding up civic cosmopolitanism as a meaningful, action-guiding goal.

I find this strategy interesting, but I do not think it has much promise as a basis for Confucian cosmopolitanism. For one thing, the strategy closely resembles a Mohist one that the canonical thinker Mengzi (Mencius) explicitly considered and rejected. In a proxy debate too subtle and contested to reconstruct here, a Mohist rival named Yi Zhi defends what appears to be a somewhat more sophisticated understanding of impartial caring, according to which “care is without distinctions, but is bestowed beginning with one’s parents” (愛無差等,施由親始). On a plausible interpretation, he thinks that people learn to care for others by indulging their natural affection for family members, but then strive over time to care similarly for non-family.Footnote 9 This is the very ethical worldview that Mengzi criticizes as having “two roots” or two foundations and causing ethical mischief.Footnote 10 However one may understand the problem of ignoring or failing to take proper account of human nature in the foundations of one’s ethics, it seems to require much more than merely making allowances for the natural limits of human motivation. Moreover, I think many scholars and practitioners of Confucianism will find off-putting or counter-intuitive the idea that people in the outer rings of the concentric circles should be brought closer to the center. So much of Confucian ethics is premised on the presupposition that we should harness and nurture rather than resist or undercut the subtly different ways in which we regard people differently related to us (Mengzi 3A4).

Human Relationships as a Basis for Civic Cosmopolitanism

Roger Ames and Henry Rosemont Jr. have argued that Confucians in general endorse what they sometimes call a “role conception” of persons, according to which everything important about the person – including the ethical norms by which they should be assessed – follows solely from the fact that one is (or maybe should be) in some sort of relationship with other people. So, for example, my obligations to other people follow solely from the fact that I am related to them as a son, sibling, spouse, colleague, teacher, neighbor (etc.) and not from the mere fact that we are all human beings or agents with moral standing or the like. To be sure, I don’t think that Ames and Rosemont accurately describe the implicit metaphysics of personhood that we find in the Confucians.Footnote 11 But even if we stipulate that they understand the implicit metaphysics correctly, one can rightly ask how Confucians ground or justify the ethical value of kindness or generosity to people with whom one is in no relationship in any obvious sense, such as complete strangers living under other political regimes. It is relatively clear that Confucians really do have obligations to non-citizen strangers, and that for them it is often virtuous to give generously to non-citizen strangers or act courageously in their defense. Should we assume that on the Confucian view, all human beings are in a relationship with each other? Clearly it wouldn’t be a relationship of the most familiar kinds (e.g., family, friends, or colleagues), but perhaps there is still some attenuated and yet intelligible sense in which total strangers in different countries nevertheless have the right sort of connection?

This raises difficult questions about the nature of relationships. I think we can make a start at addressing them by considering what it is about relationships that matters most for Confucians. Here it might help to spell out the special significance of relationships in terms of what present-day philosophers sometimes call particularity and fungibility. If Jiaying is a close friend of mine, I value her in part for the bare particular that she is, rather than solely for her traits or other characteristics. That is why, if Jiaying dies before I do, I would mourn her loss even if I happen to find a new friend with exactly the same characteristics. I care about Jiaying for her sake, for the sake of the bare particular, at least to a significant extent. The same is true to an even greater degree for the immediate members of my family. In contrast, when I act for the sake of people with whom I am not in a relationship, my moral commitments are more fungible. If I decide that it would be good to contribute to a relief fund for earthquake victims in a country with which I have no personal connection, it does not matter much which particular individuals I support. If my research shows that the philanthropic organization that supports Community A is more wasteful than the organization that supports Community B, it could well be rational to give my money to the second organization instead. In contrast, the fact that my time and resources might do more good for a stranger than for my sister does not make it rational for me to give them to the stranger in lieu of my sister. My care for my sister is not fungible. Footnote 12

It might also help to specify relationships in terms of shared ends. To share ends with Jiaying (my close friend) is for both of us to take one and the same outcome or state of affairs as having final value for ourselves. As I have argued elsewhere, not all shared ends are indicative of relationships. Sometimes two people can share an end without being in any relationship with each other whatsoever, as when two fans of the same sports team both fervently want that team to win a championship. For people truly in relationships with one another, the shared ends are “other-mediated” – it is in part for the sake of the other person that each person adopts the shared end. So, for example, if I have a hobby that I pursue together with Jiaying, and this is an end that we share in the relevant sense, I regard this hobby as having final value for me because (in part) it is something I can do with Jiaying. I value the hobby in part for her sake and for the sake of our friendship. My sharing of ends with her is other-mediated in this way, unlike in the case of sharing ends with strangers who happen to be fans of the same sports team (Tiwald 2020: 112-17).

So, here are two plausible criteria for my being in a relationship with someone: first, I should care about that person for the particular individual she is and not regard my commitments to her as fully fungible; second, I should share ends with her, and share ends in an other-mediated way. I suggest that most of the ways in which we are related to total strangers in other nation-states fail to meet these criteria. More to the point, in most cases where Confucians do believe we have obligations to total strangers in other nation-states, it would be a stretch to say that we have other-mediated shared ends or care about particular individuals non-fungibly. Perhaps a humane Confucian leader believes that she should join forces with leaders of every other nation to reduce the threat of nuclear annihilation. That is a shared end, surely, but it is not meaningfully other-mediated. Perhaps a humane Confucian citizen donates to a philanthropy that provides temporary shelters to thousands of dislocated Syrian families. It is unlikely that care for the particular victims plays a meaningful role in providing the ground or justification for her doing so. Accordingly, I do not have much hope that relationships alone can serve as a basis for Confucian civic cosmopolitanism, at least not at this early stage of our discussions. The virtuous quality of care with distinctions offers the more promising avenue.

1. Ames 1988; Rosemont 1991.

2. This type of cosmopolitanism is similar to what P.J. Ivanhoe characterize as cosmopolitanism as “an ideal view of the self” in his contribution to this project (Ivanhoe 2021). I follow Garrett Wallace Brown and David Held in using “civic cosmopolitanism” to refer to this type, which they helpfully distinguish from cultural, legal, and political cosmopolitanism (Brown and Held 2010: 9-13).

3. See Nussbaum 2019.

4. Representatives of this moderate variant include Appiah 2006 and O’Neill 2011.

5. See Mengzi 3A5, 3B9, and 7A26; Tiwald 2018.

6. Mengzi 3A5; Dai 2009, §19.

7. For more on the necessity of the state for Confucians, see Bai 2020: 176-78.

8. Long and Sedley 1987: 349-50; Ramelli 2009: 90-93. For discussion of this view and its relationship to Stoic cosmopolitanism see Nussbaum 2010: 31-32.

9. Mengzi 3A5; translation modified from Van Norden 2008: 74. See also Van Norden 2007: 237.

10. Mengzi 3A5; Nivison 1996; Van Norden 2007: 305-12.

11. See Ivanhoe 2007.

12. In characterizing care for particular individuals as non-fungible in this way, I am largely following Michael Slote (2001).


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Justin Tiwald is a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University.

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